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Free Study Guide-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
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It is December and Stephen has been making a nightly habit of visiting prostitutes for months now despite the fact that he believes he is committing a mortal sin each time he has sex with them. He sits in class hungry, thinking of the poor meal he will have when he gets home, and thinking of his habit of wandering the streets frequented by prostitutes until he is moved to choose one and have sex with her. He thinks back to the first time he visited a prostitute. He had imagined that his soul would be devoured by the sinful act. Instead, he had found a sense of quiet peace in his sin. Now he is a prefect in the college of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He leads younger boys through weekly lessons and feels very little guilt at the hypocrisy of his position. He does still feel a connection to the image of the Virgin Mary. He feels as though if anyone could help him out of his sinful ways, Mary could. He finds it strange that he gets so much enjoyment out of getting to know intimately the details of Church doctrine.

He realizes that from the first sin of having illicit sex, all the other deadly sins had followed. He sits in the classroom thinking through all the paradoxes of theology he can think of. When the rector comes into the room, he announces a retreat to be held the following week in honor of the schoolís patron saint, Saint Francis Xavier. He tells of this saintís phenomenal record of having converted ten thousand people in one week. Just before he planned a trip to China to win more souls, he died of a fever. Stephen feels a great dread at the prospect of the retreat.

Father Arnall leads the lessons of the church retreat. He announces the subjects of the retreat death, judgment, hell and heaven. After the first day of the retreat, Stephen walks home in fear for his soul. After his greasy dinner, he stands at the window contemplating the movement of his soul at his death. At the instant of his death, his soul would be judged and sent immediately to heaven, purgatory or hell. Stephen pictures the day of Judgment, as it was described by the priest, when all the souls will be called by God. The agony of being cast out of the joys of paradise will be beyond imagination. He feels as if the priest aimed every word at him personally. He feels terror at his sin.

Suddenly the thought of Emma occurs to him and he begins to feel horribly guilty. He had committed so many sins with her in his mind. He asks himself, "Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry?" He thinks of a packet of pornographic pictures he keeps in the flue of the fireplace and he thinks of the many pornographic letters he has written and then thrown into fields where some girl could come along and read them. He feels as if God and the Virgin Mary are too far above him for him to ever reach. He can think of kissing the elbow of Emmaís sleeve, though, in repentance. He imagines the Virgin Mary forgiving him and assuring him that he will always be her child.

It is raining. Stephen thinks it will never stop until the world is washed away in a great flood. He is listening to the priest describe hell. The priest describes Lucifer, the angel who sinned the with pride and then he describes Adam and Eve, who had everything in the Garden of Eden until Lucifer came in the form of a snake to tempt them to disobey God. When they did, they were banished from Eden, but as they left the Garden, God promised that one day he would send his son to help them. When Jesus came, he preached to the people, but was not heard. He was crucified. As he hung on the cross, he founded the church. He promised that if people would obey, they would be saved from hell.

The priest goes on to describe hell. It is a place so crowded that the sinner canít even move his hand to remove the worm from his eye. It is tight and dark. The stench is worse than anyone can imagine since all the filth of the world is swept down to hell. The fire is worse than any fire on earth because it does not consume its object, but preserves it. It is so intense because it is the divine judgment, a punishment sent from God. The torment of hell is made worse by the presence of all the damned who struggle against each other, blame each other for leading them into sin, and curse each other. The devils are even disgusted by the sins of the people, since they are former angels whose sin was an intellectual one, not one of "lower nature."

The priest concludes with the hope that none of the boys in the retreat will end up in hell. As Stephen leaves the chapel, his legs are shaking and his scalp is tingling from the trauma of listening to the priest. He gets to his desk and has the momentary fear that he has already died, too soon to have gotten to confession to ask for forgiveness for all his sins. Then he hears Mr. Tate and Vincent Heron talking and realizes with relief that he is still on earth and alive. He appeals to the Virgin Mary to save him from this death. He hears his English lesson with the echo of the priestís words still reverberating in his mind. He feels a "contrite peace" in his soul. Someone announces that confessions are being heard in the chapel. Four boys go, but Stephen remains, promising God that he will go to confession, but far away from the school since he is so ashamed of his sins.

Back in the chapel, Stephen hears the priest begin again. This time he will talk about the spiritual suffering of hell. The first spiritual pain is the pain of loss--the loss of Godís presence. The second is the pain of conscience. The sinners will live in perpetual remorse for their sins and remember all the many times they had the opportunity to repent. They will have Godís knowledge of sin. The next spiritual pain is the pain of extension, that is, each torment leads to greater torments. The pain of intensity will come from the fact that hell is the center of evil, so no dilution of its torments can be hoped for. The last torture is the eternity of hell. The priest describes the idea of eternity with great detail. It is like a clock ticking forever the sound of the ticking seems to be the words ever and never--forever in hell and never in heaven.

The priest then describes Godís justice in meting out such a punishment as this for even one sin. He says that people have only limited understanding. They donít know that even a venial sin is evil and corrupt and that "God would not be God if he didnít punish the transgressor." He appeals to the boys in the chapel not to offend God by continuing to sin. He calls them to repent of their sin. He turns and faces the altar, kneels and calls out the act of contrition. The boys repeat each word.

Stephen gets up to his room feeling disoriented as if his room were not his room, but some place of torment. He kneels beside the bed and tries to pray. He tries to remember each sin, cry over it, and ask forgiveness, but he canít. He feels as if this inability is the work of devils. He gets up and climbs into bed, covering himself with his blankets. He wonders why God never struck him dead while he was sinning. He tries to forget all his sins. He curls into a ball on the bed and shuts his eyes tight. He thinks of the places where he has sinned and then wishes that he could not see these places. He tries so hard that his whole body shakes from the effort. Then he opens his eyes and sees a vision of sin.

He sees a field of weeds and excrement. Six goat-like creatures wander around the field dragging their long tails in the dung. Stephen throws the blankets off himself and jumps up to get some air at the window. Before he reaches it, he vomits. He opens the window and looks out. He prays to the Virgin Mary about his sin and he weeps for his lost innocence. When it is evening, he leaves the house to go to confession. He walks quickly, feeling better knowing his purpose. As he walks, he thinks of how easy it is to sin, how insidious the devil is to tempt people into sin. He canít figure out why people are made in such a way that part of them desires purity while the other part is bestial. He pauses and prays to an angel to drive away the demon that is whispering to him. He finds a church and enters it.

Inside, he sees the priest and waits his turn to confess. He feels overcome with shame at his sins and wishes he could run away. He beats his breast as he waits. When it is his turn, he enters the confession booth and tells the priest it has been eight months since his last confession. Then he tells all his sins. The priest urges him to give up the sin of lust. Stephen promises to do so. The priest urges him to call on the Virgin Mary any time he feels the urge to sin, then he listens to Stephenís prayers of penance. Stephen leaves the church feeling pure. He walks through the muddy streets feeling as though he is surrounded by grace. At home, he notices the simple food ready for the next day and he feels happy in his life. He sleeps and dreams of going to school the next day and taking communion, feeling God in himself.


In Chapter three, Joyce describes the life of the Catholic boy with great precision. Stephen, who has been frequenting prostitutes, has not lost his faith. Even while having sex with all these women, he fears for his soul. He believes he is sinning mortally. When he participates in a retreat for the boys of his school, he is moved to the agony of remorse for his sin and impelled to confess his sins. He feels purified and clean, happy in his new state of grace.

Joyce represents the priestís words with almost no irony. It is only in small ways that he indicates his distance from the doctrine of the church. For instance, when the priest is about to describe the last things--hell and judgment--he looks at his watch. Other than moments like this, which put some distance between the doctrine being preached and the reader, Joyce gives full voice to the strong pull of the unified and coherent system of thought that is Catholicism, which explains the present with the past, the future with the beginning. Stephenís near collapse after each day of listening to the traumatic news that he will suffer in torment throughout eternity is also described in this non-ironic tone. When Stephen gets confession and feels pure and happy, the reader is lulled into the comfort of a belief system that promises peace with obedience. Joyce adds a touch of irony to the end as Stephen is feeling so pure as he walks through the muddy streets to his home. He sees the meal laid out for the next day, the meal of the poor, and feels satisfied in its simplicity, then dreams of the Eucharist, the spiritual meal of the Church.

This division between the body and the spirit is strongly at play throughout the novel. In Chapter two, Stephen rejected the spirit in favor of the pleasures of the body. In Chapter three, he rejects the body in favor of the peace of the spirit. The reader gets the uncomfortable feeling that this sixteen year old boy has more to learn and that his present sense of peace will not last long.

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Free Study Guide-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce


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